Aspen, Colorado

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Aspen is great, but it’s really not my kind of town.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’d love to live here.  But I’d also love to be able to afford to live here.  In 2011, the Wall Street Journal declared Aspen to be the most expensive town in America, with an average home price of $6 million.

Those high prices bring a level of perfection that I could feel, as I walked around the streets of Aspen, trying to find a reasonably-priced place to eat.  It was just before sunset, and the low-hanging sun was aligned perfectly with Aspen’s city streets, casting a golden glow on everything.  Dust particles, and maybe some airborne seeds from some kind of flower, danced in those beams of light.  People were out, enjoying a cool evening in late spring.  It was magical.

But I was still hungry.

Aspen’s downtown business district consists of several blocks of streets that are off-limits to vehicles.  If you’re coming in from the east (from Independence Pass), just go straight at the first big turn, where CO 82 zigs to the right.  This will put you on Cooper Avenue, one of the streets that turns into a pedestrian mall.

There are plenty of restaurants and stores in this area…

… including one that bears my name.  Hey, I wonder what kind of antiques I’m selling?

Wow, that’s a nice Louis Vuitton trunk.  And it’s only $28,000.  Yeah… I don’t think I’d let Delta check that on the flight back home.

Although I was visiting in very late spring (just about a week before the official arrival of summer), Aspen was bracing for nighttime frost.  These covered flowers were a reminder that warm weather arrives late, and leaves quickly, in the Rockies.

During my visit, Aspen’s Wagner Park was set-up for the city’s Food and Wine Classic.  The annual event features celebrity chefs, cooking demonstrations, and wine tastings.  Tickets start at $1,150.  In other words, I had to find somewhere else to eat.

Yeah, that’s more like it.  For thrifty travelers, there’s a McDonald’s at Mill Street and Cooper Avenue.  There are probably some other reasonably-priced options in Aspen (hey, there must be a few, right?), but I didn’t feel like searching them out.

I carried my sad little paper bag filled with fried food, and headed back to my motel room.  I’m pretty sure this is the most reasonably-priced place to stay in Aspen — it’s the St. Moritz Lodge, at the west end of Hyman Avenue.  The drawback? It’s also a hostel, so the common areas have a more casual feel, like you’re in somebody’s kitchen or living room. If you’re comfortable with staying in a hostel, you can get a bunk for about $33 a night (2012 prices).  I opted for a room with a private bath, which cost around $80 — and I’m certain that’s the cheapest private room you’ll find anywhere in Aspen.

Elsewhere around town

You’ll see a whole lot of condos in Aspen.  If you’re staying for a few days during ski season, this would be a great option — especially when you realize that the ski lifts are right there, on the mountain behind the condos.

Out on Main Street (Colorado Route 82), you’ll drive by the Pitkin County Courthouse.  It was completed in 1891, and it features a statue of Lady Justice without a blindfold — one of only a few made that way in the country.

The Pitkin County Courthouse has seen some high-profile defendants. Among them, Ted Bundy, who successfully escaped from a second-story window in the law library (he was recaptured a week later). More recently, in 2009, Charlie Sheen stood trial, accused of assaulting his wife at the time, Brooke Mueller.

Another local architectural landmark is the Elks Building, at Galena Street and Hyman Avenue.  It, too, was built in 1891, thanks to all the money from the silver boom, that was pouring into town.

Look hard enough, and you’ll still find some authentic remnants of Aspen’s old-west roots.  There are still a few painted-brick ghost signs around town, although and they’ve been preserved and restored.

And here’s a good idea.  Just a block south of Main Street, Hopkins Avenue has been turned into a bicycle and pedestrian path.  You can still drive on it with your car, but you’re not allowed to drive further than one block.

Smuggler Mountain Road

On my second evening in Aspen, I was determined to find a nice view of the city.  I tried driving up several dirt roads into the mountains around town, but with little success.  Most of them were rough 4-wheel-drive roads, and my little rental car wasn’t up to the challenge.  I had a little success on Smuggler Mountain Road — but I didn’t get very far before the road turned severely rocky and rough.  I made it to this viewpoint, which might have been nice in the morning, but not in the afternoon, when you’re staring directly into the sun.

You can also choose to hike up Smuggler Mountain Trail.  A lot of people were — and many of them looked at me like I was crazy for trying to drive it.

There are plenty of good hiking trails around Aspen, including some that have trailheads in town — likely just a few blocks from wherever you’re staying. The Ute Trail and Red Butte Trail are both short (less than a mile, one way) but they are both strenuous, since they both lift you out of the valley to a scenic viewpoint. The Ute Trail continues past the viewpoint to the top of Ajax Mountain, for a total elevation gain of 3,000 feet (the viewpoint is only 700 feet above the valley floor). Of course, the best place to hike in Aspen is the Maroon Bells Wilderness, which we’ll talk about on the next two pages.

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